The Great Bird Search
My mother remembers five separate deaths: tumor, disappearance, mauled by neighborhood animal, injury, and a fly-away. I remember four different colors; together we recall three names. We had these birds over six years—I think. Much of my childhood is foggy and uncertain. It’s shrouded, or sometimes replaced, by stories I’ve told myself and others. I’m concerned about why I can’t remember our birds clearly. How many did we have? I adored them; they were our bright things in a dark house.
A scene that I remember: My piano teacher sitting in a green chair, bald and patient. I’m sitting beside him on a piano bench, grinning because I have a secret. I pull out Bach. I pull out Duvernoy’s “School of Mechanism.” My piano teacher asks me what else I have in my bag. When I laugh, I look like a beaver; three index cards could fit between my front teeth. I reach to the bottom and pull out a cardboard box. A weight shifts around as I open the flaps. I place Nippy, a bright-blue parakeet, onto the piano. I’m excited for him to sing when I play my scales. Instead he poops quietly on the Steinway.
Nippy’s wings were clipped when we got him. Perhaps I thought I could encourage him to fly—I was five—so I threw him up in the air and he smacked into the ceiling. He crumbled down onto the bed, then wobbled back to life. Nippy was so beautiful; I didn’t know what to do with him. I stuffed him into my shirt, in drawers and shoes; I ran after him through the house and my father brushed him off surfaces. Nippy learned three words, then developed a tumor from stress and died in my hand. I thought life and death would always be like this—violent, morbid, pretty.
Once, my father dreamed he was in the neighbor’s yard, trying to reason with Nippy to come home. He was in his sleep clothes and the snow was melting. My blue bird scuttled away from his reach. My father spoke insistently to him, telling him that it was getting late and that his food and toys were next door. My father retells this often.
After Nippy, I don’t remember. I consult my parents’ photographs. Most of them are out of focus. We had a bad camera; I overzealously positioned the lens too close to the small birds. The blurriness makes it difficult to distinguish whether the plumage is light yellow, white, or light blue, all of which signify distinct birds in my memory. After careful consideration, I think these photographs are three different birds.
A. This one is sitting on a banker lamp, reading the “news.” I would tape various paper “books covers” on the lamp for the bird to “read,” though it chewed on the paper instead. This bird looks mostly white.
B. This bird seems yellowish and haggard, almost insect-like.
C. This one is the same color as my shirt, which is a light blue. I vaguely remember this one “begging” at the table, which would involve it sitting on my mother’s shoulder, then quickly descending down her arm to grab something off the plate.
A friend reminds me that outdoor birds used to get trapped in my family’s basement. Usually they were starlings. I would hear them banging in the vents. Once, an injured one clunked around for so long that my father took a broom to it and flattened it into the cement. My kid friends thought we were so brutal. They rumored my family to be living in ruins, sucking on rocks and committing strange crimes.
Other kids wondered why I didn’t eat Lunchables or watch television, or why I wasn’t allowed to go to the mall or sleepovers. That my parents are from another country felt insufficient, so I tried different explanations: My parents used to be circus performers! My mother is a butterfly scientist! We just moved to this country! Someone follows us with a knife! We are fluent in Esperanto! I am a spy! My childhood memories are a mix of fraudulence and exaggerations, tall tales I told as a kind of protection, which can make my memory-detective work tricky. My mythology of myself gradually became who I presented by default. I gave myself over to stories, leaving behind the facts, like my birds.
According to old diary entries, my other parakeets were named Pecky and Penelope. With names, I can begin to picture them dimensionally, place them in time. Pecky was definitely the white parakeet and Penelope was light blue. Penelope liked mirrors and doorknobs. Pecky liked to be pet on the neck. She would puff up and cock her head to the three o’clock position. I’d wiggle my finger below the beak, “under the chin” for her, and she’d close one eye. Beneath the feathers she was shrunken and bony like someone very old. When we spritzed her with a spray bottle, she became slender like a lizard. The other, nameless, yellow one I still can’t imagine. All I know is that it was our last bird.
Perhaps the key to remembering the yellow bird is finding its name. I look through a list online. Popular names include Coco, Baby, Largo, Dunly, and Stephen King. Popular unisex names are Whisper, Touche, and Megabyte. I scroll through various websites expecting something in me to light up like a metal detector. I message a childhood friend who used to ride her bike over. She confirms only what I already know.
I mention my search to my therapist and he tells me about the parrots of Telegraph Hill. How a woman had let go of her cherry-headed conures in the nineties and now they’ve taken over an area of San Francisco. I remember that I’ve seen those parrots before in real life. I visualize the vibrant parrots in a tree along the sidewalk; I get a jolt of a feeling similar to loss. And through that memory, I remember something else. I remember how I had also seen my yellow parakeet high up in a tree, through the back door of my parents’ house that my father left open, then never seeing it again.
After that, it feels as if I always knew. It’s funny, trying to remember an epiphany. I can write down what led to it—what my therapist said and how it unlocked something in me. But there is also an atmosphere to it, like a fog that pulses to show a walking path, or the settling of sediment that reveals a missing locket at the bottom of a pond. There is something mystical and frothy about the non-epiphany part of an epiphany. I remember it, but not exactly.
When I was hurt, I changed my stories to show it. I was certain my father took a broom to the starling in the basement, but when I ask my mother, she doesn’t remember it. Maybe it was another thing I made up. Or maybe it was true in another way. With language, my pain became malleable—I could control it and change it. It’s a common child’s game that isn’t fun as an adult. It’s the opposite of an epiphany: the veil evaporates and I already know what’s there. I just wish it weren’t.
Not long ago I started to tell the truth. Old habits fell away slowly and stubbornly. I said what was true even if it was dull or embarrassing. Sometimes I would look at something like a sidewalk or a leaf and feel immense gratitude. A big-bellied robin belting in the yard would fill me with awe.
Nippy, Pecky, Penelope, Henry. This last name falls into place at a random moment, as I look up from a chair. I remember all their songs clearly. You could hear them inside the house from the driveway. They would sing on my mother’s shoulder while she cooked. They would sing while we ate, along with the classical music on the radio, when I did homework. They would tuck one foot into their feathers and sing a little lullaby to themselves. They would land on my head and sing with their entire bodies, like alarms, as I walked through the house. They would hide behind the books and sing. They would sing along to thunder. Sometimes, they would sing at night.
Nicolette Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums, published by Soft Skull Press earlier this year. Her stories can be found in New York Tyrant, Egress, Fanzine, Hobart, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
From Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro, out from Tyrant Books this week.